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Fall 2000 Table of Contents
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Disabled Find Many Barriers Online

By Andrew Park, Staff Reporter, Austin American Statesman

Copyrighted material reprinted with permission from The Austin American Statesman

Originally published in the Sunday, September 3, 2000 issue of The Austin American Statesman

Tired of having to squint to read the display of his small green computer screen, Guido Corona one day replaced it with a 19-inch television. When text on the edges blurred beyond recognition, he pulled a cardboard box over his head and the monitor to block out extraneous light. When light seeped in anyway, he lined the makeshift hood with black paper to cover the cracks. When he found himself squinting again, he rigged his computer to talk to him and soundproofed his office so colleagues wouldn't be bothered by the noise.

It was 1984 and Corona, a programmer in the research labs of IBM Corporation, was losing his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder that can lay dormant for half a lifetime and then turn a sighted person blind within a matter of months. Elsewhere within IBM, blind programmers were rigging printers with rubber bands and coat hangers to get them to print Braille and going back to primitive punch card sorters that could be read by their hands. They knew - even in the early days of the personal computer - that a technological revolution was coming and they didn't want to be left behind.

Today, PCs can be custom-made for the visually impaired, and a whole industry has grown up to develop technologies to help people with disabilities. But that doesn't always make them useful to folks like Guido Corona, because much of the Internet - which has become so important in American life that it increasingly separates the haves from the have-nots - remains inaccessible to people with disabilities. They struggle every day to find their way through complex Web pages that are clogged with animation, video and data that would fill reams of paper but are void of any accommodation for their needs.

Ten years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forced corporations and governments to address the needs of people with disabilities in the physical world, advocates are focusing attention on the barriers in the virtual world. It is another digital divide, and if you think the issue is simply the ability to shop online, think again. At some point, the Internet will be the platform for learning, working and participating in society. Texas is pushing hard to adopt electronic textbooks in public schools, for example, but they will be of little value if students with disabilities cannot use them.

"To the extent that the world is moving to the Internet, it ups the ante that we have to be there or we cease being competitive," says Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind in Washington. "We've always said that blind people can be competitive. But being competitive can be tough to do if the technology is moving too fast for you to keep up with."

Fighting for access

According to a study released in March by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, less than 10 percent of people with disabilities regularly use the Internet, versus nearly forty percent of people with no disabilities.

In the past two years, major computer and software makers have decreed that their products will be built with accessibility for everyone in mind, from people who can't use a mouse to those who can't hear the computer's beeps and whistles. But the needs of people with disabilities still get trampled under the rush to expand the Internet and use it to transform all aspects of American life, from business to government to education.

"Ninety percent of the Internet pages have some problem with accessibility," says Kelly Ford, a Portland, Ore., consultant who teaches web design to corporations and is one of the more outspoken advocates of building accessibility. "Inaccessible information is just as much a barrier as a set of steps is to a person in a wheelchair."

After years of pushing technology companies behind the scenes to improve the accessibility of their products, the fight is becoming public. In the past year, advocates for people with visual impairments have sued major corporations including Bank of America, H&R Block and Intuit, claiming the companies' popular software and Web sites aren't compatible with the screen-reading technology they use to surf the Web. They charged that Internet services such as online shopping, banking and tax preparation constitute public accommodations that, under the ADA, have to be as accessible to people with disabilities as the public library or the mall.

America Online recently settled a suit by agreeing to make future versions of its Internet service software accessible to screen readers and other technology that people with disabilities use. The Department of Justice ruled in 1996 that the ADA applied to the Internet, and the government is adopting rules requiring accessibility in all technology it buys. The rules are expected to encourage state and local governments as well as the private sector to pay more attention to the issue.

But it remains to be seen whether corporate policies and government regulations can keep up with the explosive growth of the Internet. New elements are added every day to Websites, often without regard to how different viewers might experience them. The emergence of affordable high-bandwidth connections such as cable modems and DSL has encouraged Web designers to create sites with complex features like streaming audio and video, animation and built-in, executable programs elements that even many people without disabilities have trouble using.

"I think as the Web continues to grow, it gets more inaccessible," says Jim Allan, information technology director at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

With the advent of each new potentially world-changing Internet application --- telecommuting, distance learning, online voting, digital signatures, e-books --- people with disabilities question whether they will be able to take advantage, too.

"Every new thing that comes along, the first thing that I do is worry," Chong says, "I will say that most of my worry has been justified."

Screen-reader success

Guido Corona is not alone at IBM, and was not when he joined in the early 1980s. Long before the Web existed, computing's emphasis on the visual caused problems with blindness and other disabilities, forcing them to improvise. Each time such improvisations failed him, Corona cursed his state-of-the-art computer and blamed technology, even though he knew it was his vision that was reaching obsolescence.

"It was me, my eyes that were going the way of the Edsel or dodos," says Corona, 47, his eyes hidden by mirrored sunglasses more suited to a Texas state trooper than a computer programmer.

As he continued to struggle, Corona learned that an IBM researcher named James Thatcher was developing a program that, when combined with a speech synthesizer, could read text aloud from a PC screen.

"That was really a very important thing for the blind community, because it opened up jobs that wouldn't be available to them," says Thatcher, who retired from IBM in April.

Corona jumped at the chance to be one of the early testers of the product called PC-SAID beginning a association with Thatcher that culminated in 1996, when IBM moved its Special Needs System group, which was charged with bringing all of the company's efforts in developing computing for people with disabilities, to Austin. Corona, then working in Toronto, soon followed. By the early 1990's, millions of people were logging onto e-mail and a text-based Internet through services such as AOL and Prodigy, including many blind people who used screen-reading programs. With the invention of the Web browser, though, developers were able to format text into boxes and columns and add logos, charts, photographs, and drawings and the Internet began to evolve into a much more graphic environment.

Once again, people with disabilities were left behind. Not only did the emphasis on spectacular graphics mean that visually impaired people using screen readers were stymied; the growing emphasis on the mouse as a tool for navigating the visual world of the Internet also meant that many people with mobility problems would be left out.

"In 1997, I was essentially refusing to recognize it because it was truly becoming a schizophrenic experience," Corona says. "There were less and less places that you could go to."

About the same time in a laboratory in Tokyo, an IBM researcher was programming a screen reader that would recognize not just conventional text, but also the tags in HTML that control where text is displayed, its appearance and its function on Web pages. The program, called Home Page Reader, offered the visually impaired user signals to how a Web page was laid out and how to navigate it. Thatcher's group brought the software to the United States and released a second version last year.

Home Page Reader - and programs like it from assistive-technology companies such as Henter-Joyce Inc. - rely on web developers to include text alternatives to graphic elements as they are programming their pages. It is an easy step in designing a page, but one many programmers overlook.

"When the issue of accessibility comes up, that's not the number one priority. The number one priority is to have a nice-looking product," says Adam Weinroth, a Web developer at Mediatruck Inc. in Austin, whose team won first place in a contest last fall in which local design firms created accessible Web sites for nonprofit organizations. "Now it's to the point where people are potentially missing out on customers or missing out on revenue because of it."

Indeed, people with disabilities are increasingly looked upon by corporations as a lucrative market, and their combined buying power of $300 billion is only expected to grow as baby boomers age.

But change is not easy. Advocates bring inaccessible sites to the attention of the companies that run them, and their recent targets have been some of the biggest names on the Web: Dell Computer, Citibank, Priceline. After becoming a faithful customer of HomeGrocer.com, Kelly Ford complained when the site was redesigned and its accessible features were dropped. The Seattle company made the appropriate changes, but it was later sold to another company whose online grocery site is not accessible.

And sites that target a wide audience have been embarrassed when they have failed accessibility tests. The Bush for President campaign recently relaunched its site, only to read in the media that it didn't meet accessibility standards.

Last spring, people found that the ballots for the online primary held in Arizona were inaccessible; voting buttons were not labeled with text alternatives. As with Ford's experience with online grocery shopping, people with disabilities were denied a chance to do something they struggle with in the physical world.

"It was the one time that people who are blind could have had complete independence when voting at the polls, and they blew it," said Cynthia Waddell, who helped the city of San Jose become the first major municipality to address the accessibility of its Web sites.

Change Comes Slowly

Not everyone agrees that Web sites should be required to include the kind of clues that Home Page Reader and other screen recognition software can use. At a hearing in February, a House subcommittee heard testimony whether the Internet was a "public accommodation" as defined by the ADA, and much of the testimony was against the idea.

"It would be hard to find a better way to curb the currently explosive upsurge to this new publishing and commercial medium than to menace private actors with liability if they publish pages that fail to live up to some expert body's idea of accessibility in site design," Walter Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

And many who call for better accessibility favor encouraging more enlightened design, rather than forcing it. Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and others, speak of a future which "universal design" allows all people to access Internet content, no matter what their capabilities are or what type of device they are using. Rather than build sites that use only text or that have separate sites for people with disabilities, they advocate designing sites that transform gracefully, recognizing the special needs of the user as soon as they load onto the screen. And despite the effort IBM has made promoting Home Page Reader, the special-needs group remains a bit player in the corporations cast - only 17 employees out of a work force of more than 300,000. Only in the past three years has the company bothered to file for patents on technologies for people with disabilities, and despite a company-wide directive last year that all IBM products and Web sites must be accessible, Chairman Louis Gerstner has not talked publicly about the need for the industry to follow suit.

Like IBM, Microsoft has widely advertised its accessibility effort, but it employs just 50 people and has been active since 1998. Before then, the company did not work with developers of accessibility software, so blind users had to wait nine months before being able to work with accessible versions of new systems such as Windows 95.

"It's very easy for our products to get lost because we have very small volume and there are many other very important products in which we get lost," IBM's Thatcher says. "It's hard for IBM to sell so few products."

For Guido Corona, Home Page Reader has been a godsend, and he is back to being an Internet evangelist. Many sites still confound him, but most weeks, he spends hours searching the Web for news, the latest price of IBM stock, downloadable books and music, and stories about science. On his desk at home there are books by Tom Clancy and Thomas Mann he has scanned into his computer to be read back to him later.

In the 19th century, when the masses were learning to read, the divide between the blind and the sighted populations widened. Those who could read suddenly had access to information about the world, while the blind had to rely on hearsay. Later, they could listen to radio and television, and Braille texts and recorded books helped. But none of it was available widely enough or quickly enough to provide access to information.

"Now with the explosion of information on the Internet, that gap becomes even greater because the amount of information out there is growing exponentially, but the blind population will start with the same methods," Corona says. "So when the Internet becomes all of a sudden accessible, it's truly opening the floodgate of knowledge, of information, of self-worth, of education, of being part of this global village. And that is awesome."

Editor's note: If Guido Corona's name sounds familiar to some of you there's a good reason. He was the keynote speaker at the July 2000 Summer Technology Institute held in Austin.

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